The Happiness Project

Secrets to Happiness: Prayer and Wii Mario Kart

I just finished reading Kevin Roose’s memoir, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University . As a 19-year-old college student at Brown, Kevin decided to spend a semester “undercover” as a student at Liberty University, the largest Christian fundamentalist university in the United States, founded by Jerry Falwell. He wanted to understand what that college experience, so different from his own, would be. The book is a very sympathetic, searching look at what he found at Liberty.

I loved this book. I love memoirs; I love yearlong experiments, no surprise (though, actually, his experiment lasted only a semester); I’m fascinated by very devout communities. Plus the book is very funny.

The experience caused Kevin to re-examine many of his assumptions—in particular, his assumptions about what makes people happy.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy didn’t—or vice versa?
Kevin: When I got to Liberty for the first day of orientation week, I expected to be completely unhappy, mostly because Liberty’s 46-page code of conduct—which prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, cursing, and dancing—wiped out basically 95 percent of my daily life. After I got used to the rules, though, I actually found that the rigid discipline was actually sort of refreshing. It gave me an incredible amount of structure in my life, and I felt happy and productive there. A sociologist named Margarita Mooney has done studies of religious college students who attend services regularly, and it turns out that on the whole, they report being happier, more motivated, more diligent about their schoolwork than the students who don’t practice a religion. I think I can see why.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Well, it wasn’t that long ago—I’m only 21 now—but I think one of my major realizations has been that my happiness doesn’t always have to depend on how busy I am. It used to be that I’d think of happiness as a timed goal—as in, “After I finish my manuscript, I’ll be able to relax” or “When midterms are over, I’ll finally get to have fun.” But recently, I’ve been able to be happy even in the most hectic times, simply by prioritizing and taking breaks to do things I enjoy.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
When I was living at Liberty, I had to learn how to pray. I’m back at secular college now, but I still pray almost every day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an evangelical Christian, and I don’t believe that God sits on his throne in heaven watching our requests flood into his cosmic inbox. But I do think there’s value in focusing on the needs of my friends and family members, trying to empathize with them for 10 or 20 minutes a day. It forces me to be aware of how lucky I am, and I really do think it motivates me to be more compassionate. As the writer Oswald Chambers says, it’s not so much that prayer changes things, but that prayer changes me, and I change things.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy—if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
I’m a chronic perfectionist, so writing and rewriting my book was a fairly unhappy process at times. I’d spend an hour writing a paragraph, decide I hated it, and spend another hour rewriting it, only to realize later that it had been better the first time around. It was tough, but I eventually learned to silence my inner editor and allow myself to work even when I knew I wasn’t feeling up to the task. Once, I put a Post-it note above my computer that said, “Whatever It Is, Write Through It.” Reading it was like getting a halftime pep talk from a football coach, but the nerdy version.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (Mine is reading children’s books.)
Three words: Wii Mario Kart . I know this might cement my status as an overstimulated member of the millennial generation, but what can I say? Playing video games makes me happy. Between releasing my book and keeping up with my schoolwork, my brain’s circuits are on 24-hour overload. Being able to zone out, forget about work, and guide an animated mushroom around a racetrack filled with oversized Venus’ flytraps is about as relaxing as it gets.

* I love HeadButler —a place to go for great recommendations for books, movies, music, and products—I signed up for the daily e-mail.

* Consider starting a group—organized around happiness projects! (Or a book group focused on happiness books.) I’m busily creating the starter kit to send out to anyone who is interested. If you want a starter kit, e-mail me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com ], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual e-mail format—that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line. Or use the sign-up box in the top-right column of the blog.